January 14, 2009
Here in Washington, the compound adjective of the moment is “shovel-ready.” That’s the description of stimulus projects that are ready to go on the day President-elect Obama takes office. For the most part, as the term implies, it refers to large infrastructure projects like the building of new roads or bridges..
But one obvious project that’s also ready to go on day one is the scanning of the contents of the Library of Congress. Today there’s a ceremonial event at the LC to showcase the thousands of books already scanned as part of the LC’s partnership with the Internet Archive, and to highlight the potential of a mass digitization project. It goes without saying that this project could be extended easily to other cultural heritage institutions. IA already has a dedicated scanning center in the LC, and just needs the funds to expand its project
Cohen goes on to defend the virtues of a mass public digitization project vs. the Google Books model. Let me add a dissenting voice to the chorus, though — or rather, a complimentary optimism about the possibilities of for-profit digitization.
In particular, I’m holding out for some kind of universally-adopted, ad-supported, revenue-sharing remunerative model whereby books that are in copyright (whether they’re in print or not) can be made more widely available for reading and/or preview. In short, I want the radio for books. And for private institutions like libraries and universities, I want something closer to a real virtual library, preserving old and new books alike. And I will posit that a large, for-profit entity like Google is in the best position to do that.
NB: I am not in any way discounting the value of digitizing out-of-print and rare books, journals, etc. My professional life as an academic depends on these projects. But I do think that it is far from the full story looking at how this whole show moves forward.